Lesson Plan #1: Imagining the Divine
In “This Imagination Life,” Rodger Nishioka illustrates several different understandings of imagination and names ways in which individuals and communities have imagined God in their midst. In this lesson participants will explore the meaning of imagination and be led in an experience of primary and secondary imagination at work. They will also be invited to consider paradigms that may inhibit their imagination and gifts of grace that may allow them to expand the ways in which they imagine God.
This is intended to be the first of four 60-minute adult education classes on imagination. Participants may have read the articles on Imagination by Nishioka, Hylen, Clayton, and Thompson, but this is not necessary. This lesson plan may be adapted for a shorter or longer timeframe or may be incorporated into a larger series on imagination.
The room should be arranged with enough small tables in the middle of the room so that participants can gather in groups of 3 or 4 during the presenting, exploring, and responding sections of the course.
At the end of the teaching session, participants will be able to:
1. Identify multiple definitions of imagination,
2. Discuss the degree to which these definitions are helpful or unhelpful in forming a theology of imagination, and
3. Explore issues of primary and secondary imagination, paradigmatic imagination, and imagination as revelation through the use of images of and about God.
*(optional) The following articles on imagination may be assigned as reading before the class begins: “This Imagination Life”, by Rodger Nishioka and “Sight Overwhelmed,” by Kimberly L. Clayton
*Drawing paper and chalk pastels or other drawing medium (to be used in the opening section)
*Printed quotes (to be placed at tables around the room in the presenting section, see below)
*green, yellow and red small post-it notes (to be used in the presenting section)
*Color prints of Marc Chagall’s David and Bathsheba,1 one or two for each table (to be used in the responding section)
Opening (5 minutes)
Welcome individuals to the room and give time for them to greet one another.
In his response essay, Thompson invites us to think about the ways in which we engage scripture as a church and consider methods of interpretation that invite us into the text rather than keeping us outside of it. Thus, the opening and closing liturgies for the lesson intend to invite participants to experience the Psalms anew and be led to experience the rest of the lesson in imaginative ways.
–Prayer for Illumination:
God who imagined order out of chaos and light out of darkness, silence in us any voice but your own, that we may hear what you have to say to us today and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, see you anew. Amen.
–Before beginning, invite participants to close their eyes during the reading or to use provided drawing materials to imagine the text. Depending on the comfort level of participants, a prompt may be helpful, such as “Imagine what the images in the text look like,” or “What does God look like in this text?”
–Reading: Psalm 104:1-23
–Allow 1 minute of silence for continued contemplation.
–Invite a few participants to share what the experience was like for them.
Presenting: (20 minutes)
Both Nishioka and Clayton discuss their own perspectives on imagination and name other scholars who contribute to a definition of imagination, including Kant, Coleridge, Green, Dykstra, and Ford. Use these different understandings of imagination to facilitate conversation around a theology of imagination.
Print the following quotes onto paper and hang them on the walls at different points around the room. Invite participants to move around the room for about 5-7 minutes and to reflect upon the quotes as they do. Provide them with small colored post-it notes, green for “I agree with this one,” red for “I don’t agree with this one,” and yellow for “I’m still thinking about this one.” Invite them to place a post-it beside quotes accordingly. In order to guard against each participant placing a green post-it at each quote, instruct the class that they may use only 3 green post-its. If they agree with many of the quotes, they must choose the 3 that are most compelling.
Once they have had time to read all the quotes, invite participants to find their seats. Walk around the room and read through the quotes one-by-one, pausing at each to survey the colored post-it notes and give a brief background of the quotation.
Quote #1: “Imagination is the faculty of representing in intuition an object that is not itself present.” Immanuel Kant
Quote #2: “The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the ethereal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In your presentation of this quote’s background, you may want to use this interpretation of Coleridge from Rodger Nishioka in “This Imagination Life”: “[the primary imagination] moves us beyond the use of imagination as merely the ability to represent something concrete that is not present in our direct experience…to a new ability to see even beyond the concrete realm to a God who is both in our experience and beyond it.”
Quote #3: “[the secondary imagination is the ability to] transcend this primary organization, to reassemble perceptual elements or fragments and create new meaning, ultimately grasping for fuller and deeper meaning in our search for union with the Divine.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In your presentation of this quote’s background, you may want to use this interpretation of Coleridge from Rodger Nishioka in “This Imagination Life”: “In the faithful and creative imagination gifted to humankind by God, we do not keep these experiences of God to ourselves but rather we naturally share them so that others may come to imagine and know God as well.”
Quote #4: “Garret Green, in his book ‘Imagining God—Theology and the Religious Imagination,’ describes a ‘paradigmatic imagination.’ For Green, imagination depends on one’s paradigms. A paradigm is what one has come to believe as normative and it therefore forms the basis of one’s constitutive structure. We rely on our paradigms as the basis of our imagination.” Rodger Nishioka
Quote #5: “Imagination is all about creating—in our minds or with clay or paint or in work with other people—things that do not exist. It means seeing what is not, and then, perhaps, bringing it into being.” Craig Dykstra
Quote #6: “[Imagination] involves what one might call ‘seeing in depth.’ It is the capacity to perceive the ‘more’ in what is already before us. It is the capacity to see beneath the surface of things, to get beyond the obvious and the merely conventional, to note the many aspects of any particular situation, to attend to the deep meaning of things.” Craig Dykstra
Quote #7: “Ecclesial Imagination is a way of seeing and being that emerges when a community of faith, together as a community, comes increasingly to share the knowledge of God and to live in the way of abundant life—not only in church but also in the many contexts where they live their daily lives.” Craig Dykstra
Quote #8: “Jesus Christ is an embodiment of multiple overwhelmings” David Ford
Here we see a different definition of imagination, outlined in Clayton’s article. David Ford anchors imagination in baptism, in which we are “shaped by Christ of multiple overwhelmings,” says Clayton.
Exploring: (10 minutes)
You may ask some or all of the following:
What two parts does Coleridge include in his definition of imagination?
What similarities or differences do you see among the quotes by Dykstra?
Which of these quotes do you see at work in your daily life, if any? How?
Which of these understandings of imagination makes the most sense to you?
Which makes the least sense to you?
Responding: (10 minutes)
Nishioka illustrates Coleridge’s understanding of primary and secondary imagination in Act Two and Act Three of “This Imagination Life.” To further illustrate the concepts of primary and secondary imagination, divide the class into small groups of three or four. Place a print of Chagall’s David and Bathsheba at each table, but do not reveal the title of the work yet.
First, give 3 minutes for participants to view the image and think about what they see, answering the following question for themselves:
Where do I see God at work in this image?
Invite participants to share their reflections with one another in small groups of three or four.
Next, tell the class that the work they have been viewing is entitled, David and Bathsheba. Ask them to repeat the process: think for a minute or so about how God is at work in this image, knowing that this is about David and Bathsheba.
Invite participants again to share their thoughts in their small groups for about a minute.
Finally, invite each group to step back from their process and reflect on the experience itself, answering the following questions:
In what ways did your sharing sessions contribute to your ability to imagine new possibilities?
What paradigms did you discover throughout the process that may have hindered your ability to imagine?
What grace did you find in the process?
Closing (5 minutes)
Read Psalm 104:1-23 again.
Ask the following questions:
What, if anything, did you hear differently this time around?
Why do you think that is?
End with your own prayer or the following (adapted from Psalm 104:30-34):
You send your Spirit, O God, and we are created.
You renew the face of the earth with new life, and we are amazed.
Lead us in the way of your imagination,
that we may sing your glory as long as we live
And praise you with our whole being.
In the name of Christ, who is God with us, we pray.